Obama: the Nonprofit Sector's Favorite Son?

As never before in recent memory, all eyes are on the presidential election. And for Blue Avocado readers, part of the reason is that one of the candidates - Barack Obama - comes from the nonprofit sector. While presidential candidates typically begin their careers at private law firms or in government, Obama chose to begin his as an organizer and antipoverty advocate for a community-based nonprofit. His wife Michelle is a former nonprofit executive director. Other presidential candidates have shared Obama's commitment to civil rights, community empowerment and economic justice. But Obama is the first major candidate to have come from on-the-ground nonprofit work.

Veteran journalist Deborah Bolling spoke with antipoverty nonprofit folk to learn how they are reacting to a fellow nonprofiteer running for president.

When Senator Barack Obama rose to occupy center stage during his appearance at the Democratic National Convention four years ago, most Americans never imagined the spotlight he commanded then would shine even brighter now.

After a protracted primary battle with perhaps a remarkably formidable candidate, Obama has emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president of the United States.

Obama's unexpected ascension is marked by at least three historical precedents: He is the first African American nominee of a major political party; he was raised in Hawai'i by a white, single mother, and he got his political chops working as a community organizer for nonprofit agencies.

Some speculate that should Obama become president, his unique background could provide a lift to the nonprofit community.

aEUoeI do believe his presidency will stimulate the nonprofit sector,aEU says Milwaukee nonprofiteer Paul Schmitz.

Candidate Opted for a Nonprofit Career

Most political observers agree Obama is a fresh face. He's offering a new perspective to a nation whose leadership has more often come from wealthier and more privileged backgrounds. And the 46-year-old Illinois senator's resume, considered "thin" by pundits nationwide, is definitely unique.

As a young college graduate, Obama passed over the high salaries he could have commanded in corporate life, choosing instead to move to the South Side of Chicago, where he worked with churches, residents and local government. His early commitment to the nonprofit sector has continued to shape and characterize his leadership style.

Paul met Obama 15 years ago. It was one year after Obama became a founding board member of Public Allies, a nonprofit that identifies talented young adults from diverse backgrounds and prepares them for careers working for community and social change. The next year, the candidate's wife, Michelle Obama, launched Public Allies Chicago, becoming its founding executive director. Paul - CEO of Public Allies - says he believes both Obamas are prone to support nonprofit sector efforts which actively engage the public.

Community Organizing in the Campaign

"For me, it's clear that Barack and Michelle understand how to build an organization from the grassroots," Paul says. "Look at the way he organized his campaign. They engaged in civic engagement, including the recruitment of thousands of volunteers. His campaign mobilized 1.7 million donors. He's assembled young, old; black, white; rich and poor. That effort was driven by community organizing - not political organizing."

Paul sits on the boards of the UW-Milwaukee Helen Bader Institute for Nonprofit Management, the Nonprofit Sector Workforce Coalition and the steering committee for Voices for National Service. While Paul says he is not an endorser of an Obama presidency, he believes a civic engagement agenda could emerge from an Obama White House.

"Barack has been focusing on ideas that show he's trying to figure out how the sector will fare," Paul concludes. "They'll be working in this space; playing in our sandboxes, so to speak."

An Antipoverty Perspective?

Others point to Obama's perspective on poverty and income disparity as a welcome contribution to the political discourse.

"Barack Obama would be the first president in U.S. history to have grown up in a family that used food stamps," says Joel Berg.

Joel is the executive director of New York Coalition Against Hunger, a nonprofit organization representing more than 1,200 soup kitchens and food pantries in New York City, and serving more than one million low-income New Yorkers.

Although NYCAH does not engage in political activity, Joel says that in his personal view, ObamaaEU(tm)s life and work experiences afford him an uncommon edge and insight when understanding the pressing domestic issues Americans now face.

"Obama grew up in poverty and I believe he can combat poverty," Joel says. "His antipoverty plan is comprehensive. It resonates with us. ... I know that presidential leadership can make a great difference. John Kennedy made poverty an issue in his presidential campaign, and from 1960 through 1973, the poverty rate in America was cut in half."

During the 1990s, Joel worked in the Clinton administration, under five separate posts. He says when he was tasked with launching the U.S. Department of AgricultureaEU(tm)s sponsorship of AmeriCorps programs to fight hunger, he became deeply involved in hunger issues and a committed poverty advocate. The eight years were consumed by a bruising battle to win a single, seemingly incremental budgetary increase.

aEUoeBut,aEU Joel says, aEUoeit helped 10 million people.aEU

Attention Must Be Paid

Since 1996, George Jones has been the executive director of Bread for the City, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit offering services such as food, clothing, medical care and legal and social services to District residents.

George says the average yearly income for families served by his agency is $7,000; he says this year, due to increased economic strains, Bread for the City has provided aid to 10,000 more people than it served last year.

As he considers the possibility of an Obama presidency, George says he's optimistic: "Obama's election could mean amazing things in the war on poverty," George says. "It sounds like he's willing to, and interested in, engaging the body politic on this incredibly important issue."

Illinois, Kansas and Hawai'i - states where Obama has lived or has family ties - all consider him a favorite son. Could Obama be the nonprofit sector's favorite son as well? Would a aEUoenonprofit presidentaEU make a difference for the nationaEU(tm)s tens of thousands of community groups?

George remains cautious about any U.S. president addressing a key concern of many nonprofiteers: the needs of AmericaaEU(tm)s low-income people.

Still, George says, Obama holds promise.

aEUoeYes. We. Can. is almost a question for me,aEU he says. aEUoeHow much change can [Obama] affect? There are clear obstacles aEU| but forget solutions. IaEU(tm)d be happy just to see some attention paid to income disparity and other domestic issues. The hope for change hasnaEU(tm)t been as high in the past 30 years.aEU

Deborah Bolling, a commentator at WAMU 88.5 in Washington, DC, where she also coordinates the stationaEU(tm)s Youth Voices program, has worked in film, television and print journalism. She has produced music videos, reported for South African radio, been a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia City Paper, contributed as a freelancer to Newsday and the New York Times, and served on the communications staff of Philadelphia Mayor John Street.

Comments (10)

  • Please check your facts. While Obama may be nonprofit friendly, he didn't hit the nonprofit world until after he attended Harvard Law School and worked at a very presitigious Chicago law firm where he met his wife.

    Jul 01, 2008
  • This is a glorified political endorsement masquerading as journalism. Please identify it as such and also consider the appropriateness of such writing in this forum.

    Jul 01, 2008
  • Dear Lady,
    You have been terribly misinformed about Obama! He is a Socialist and will absolutely leave this country's economy in shambles. Just because you think he has a background in the nonprofit sector does not mean he will be good for the nonprofit sector. With him in office, people will not have enough money left over to give to their favorite charities. His association with extremely shady characters should cause you serious concern!

    Jul 01, 2008
  • Adding to the comment by Allyzz, the nonprofit for which he worked, ACORN, (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) is under investigation by the feds for voter registration fraud in the 2004 election, as well as other nefarious conduct before and since that time, not the least of which is intimidation tactics that look a lot like RICO problems.
    This is not a badge of honor for this candidate. How long before we hear him reply, "That is not the ACORN I knew"?

    Jul 01, 2008
  • The nonprofit sector often acts as the conscience or the superego of the "government of the people". It tells the government what is right and what is wrong and to do the right thing. A government of the people, by the people and for the people should pay attention to the non-profit sector which often fills in what the government fails to do to ease the effects of poverty and other forms of neglect and deprivation of its people. Now going back to Obama -does having gone to Harvard law School and a prestigious law firm taint him? Not necessarily - he had opportunity and he grabbed it. He could have stayed at the law firm but he chose to do organizing work in the nonprofit sector. That, to me is a mark of a true leader. He came back, or, rather he paid attention to the work that needed to be done and did organizing work to help build the power of the people. Now he has another opportunity to make change in a most powerful way - being the leader of the "free world". Many people worked with him and convinced many more that with him, we have a chance to effect change for the better towards a more egalitarian, more just and more free United States of America.

    Jul 01, 2008
  • I usually like your articles and they are helpful to non-profits. As a lifelong volunteer, leader and supporter of numerous non-profits, I am stunned to see you "politize" your site with the Obama article.

    Obama would NOT help the non-profit sector which depends upon contributions from middle America and higher income givers. His new taxes on capital gains and incomes at the higher level will diminish charitable giving.

    Growing up poor is not a valid reason to make the assumption that he would be better for non-profits. I am sure that Blue Avocado has not run an article on the philanthropic contributions of the Bush family....or Cindy McCain.

    When I read your site, I expect good information, not political endorsements camoflaged as an article of interest.

    Jul 01, 2008
  • Having a president who grew up on food stamps is no crime, but it may have taught Barack Hussein that dependency on government assistance is a good thing. And his later work with non-profits - dependent on private largesse and public funding - seems to have solidified that leaning. Let us not forget that the government has no money except what they take from us. His presidency would be a disaster for us all and such a ringing endorsement as in the above article has no place in the Blue Avocado. But then, it isn't the RED Avocado, is it?

    Jul 01, 2008
  • I serve at a nonprofit working with low income people. I would hope that as president, Obama would assist this group of Americans. However, he has not provided any leadership in this or any other area as an elected official, whether in Illinois (where he repeatedly voted "present" instead of taking a stand on issues); or as a U.S. senator, where I see no examples of his taking a stand and making a difference on poverty or any other issue. I will vote for Obama and I hope that he does represent "change," but he has not taken advantage of his opportunities to initiate "change" so far.

    Jul 02, 2008
  • Thanks everyone (really!) for these comments. To tell the truth, by running freelancer Deborah Bolling's piece, we weren't trying to endorse Obama, although clearly that's how it was read by at least some of you. If one of the presidential candidates were a former dentist, I would expect a dentistry magazine to run a generally positive piece on the candidate (rather than a hard-hitting political analysis of all the candidates), and that's the sense that we took into this.

    Pauline's comment is particularly valuable because it speaks to the question of how a person's background affects or doesn't affect the way that person thinks as a policymaker. And Mikey: kudos to you for the humorous comment about red and blue avocados.

    We do want to take on timely issues from the perspective of the nonprofit sector, and your comments will help us do a better job of this in the future. Thanks again, Jan

    Jul 02, 2008
  • I was glad to see this article explore another facet of Obama which contributes to making him an exciting and worthy candidate for president. He has articulated that he understands change must also come from below, that he is interested in having a grassroots movement that speaks out in support of the policy changes and directions he wants to move toward at the top. Most likely this is because he was involved in community organizing and the non-profit sector and understands the difference both can make. I work with many young people and for the first time they are truly excited about a presidential election and a candidate. I would much rather that the money "our government takes from us" gets spent on fighting poverty, improving public education and making health care available to all than on a war in Iraq, and Obama can move us in that direction. Of course, this is my opinion and I respect that others differ. It was perfectly appropriate for Blue Avocado to write an article that researched his non-profit background. Most non-profit sector folks I know are pretty darn independent and can be counted upon to do the research that allows them to make up their minds on something as important as a presidential candidate.

    Jul 02, 2008

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